Friday, 9 November 2012

A new hope?

There isn’t a good place to get cancer (I really don’t recommend the head, for instance) but some are better than others.

For a while there, it looked like America was about to become one of the others. Again.

But the good guy won their weirdly complicated election, and although ObamaCare doesn’t really come close to our free-at-the-point-of-need NHS, it’s a step in the right direction, and it’ll be nice when it’s finished. It’s also a progression Mitt Romney had pledged to reverse, despite having introduced something similar in Massachusetts during his tenure as Governor there. Which seems odd, unless you uncharitably see Mitt as a spineless flip-flopper who only won the Republican candidacy over his more extreme (no, really) opponents because he dribbles less and can dress himself, but is nonetheless in thrall to the far right, which thinks ending ObamaCare is the right thing to do.

It’s odd that there are people in the world who think that it’s morally correct to deny people accessible healthcare. Apparently it’s to do with their right to choose. The choice between them paying a little less tax and someone else getting to live, I presume. Yay for civil liberties.

But that’s not a choice to be made for now, because Obama gets to keep the nice Washington mansion for another four years. Which is good: he must have just got the couch in front of the telly worked into his shape. That’s something to strive for, and it’s a terrible thing to deprive a man of his own properly-grooved sofa. Happily, Barack gets to watch his West Wing box-set in comfort, and US patients get an era of renewed hope.

Which is apt, because this is a hopeful week, running as it does towards Remembrance Sunday. Which should be a day of hope, each scarlet flower a symbol of optimism that the human species can renew itself after horror and will remember not to repeat the stupidity.

Of course, we don’t always remember. Which is why we need the reminder.

One spectacular example of forgetfulness recently came from our plate-faced pudding of a Prime Minister, who seems to think that despite the economy remaining in the toilet, a postal order for £50million would be just the ticket for a wizard wheeze marking the start of the Great War, to “capture our national spirit in every corner of the country”.

Right, Dave. Because the First World War was just like the Jubilee and the Olympics, which went awfully well. Let’s have another one! After all, we won, didn’t we? There must be some brand advantage in that.

Or you could just buy a bloody poppy. It would be a lot cheaper, and commemorate the end, not the start, of one of the least laudable periods in our history, when for complicated political reasons an almost entire generation of youth was encouraged to trot enthusiastically off to conveyor-belt death by disease, drowning in mud, and the exciting new inventions of chemical warfare and machine-gun fire.

It’s because of buffoons like the leader of the Eton Mess that poppy day is at all controversial, that white poppies become a popular alternative for those who wish to celebrate peace rather than war and others simply refuse to wear a poppy at all.

I appreciate that sentiment, but I don’t agree. Abandoning the symbol doesn’t help: we need to keep the red poppy, not as a celebration of war, but as a annually-renewed reminder of its bloody foolishness; of the needless, wasteful horror and terrible loss; that Dulce et Decorum est really is an old lie.

We need to keep that splash of blood with its blackened core, the gunshot wound worn above each of our hearts, centre stage amidst the military show of Armistice Day.

That’s our renewed hope. Every year. Sometimes, it even works.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Happy birthday to me...

My earliest memory, I believe, dates from 42 years ago today: November 2, 1970. It’s dark, I’m lying down and my father is bending over me, saying “and tomorrow you’ll be two”.

I think this is a true memory. I’ve always thought it to be so, and I seem to have recalled it many times throughout my life, particularly as my birthday approaches. But whether this has refreshed it, or merely rebuilt it and I just remember my own construct, I can’t be certain. According to Wikipedia’s entry on childhood amnesia (the phenomenon that adults cannot remember early childhood clearly), "memories from early childhood (around age two) are susceptible to false suggestion, making them less trustworthy". A bit like Wikipedia. 

I mentioned my memory to my dad some time ago and he doesn’t believe it happened, but that could be because he doesn’t believe I could remember it. I think it is more or less accurate, but I may have altered some details. I’m pretty convinced of the words spoken, but my father’s face is blurry – it’s undeniably him but I’ve no clear picture of him in his late 20s. Also, I think I’m in a bed, not a cot, and in my own bedroom: that’s dubious because of another early memory I have, of being just a little older and breaking out of my cot, which was in my parents’ bedroom.

That apparently quite regular escapade is still occasionally the subject of an amusing family anecdote, but I'm convinced of my memory of doing it because I remember what it felt like. One end of the cot was an integral blanket box, the outer face of which was a curved roller door. I remember clambering onto it from inside the cot and then the discomfort, the pressure on my ribs, as I spun myself round on my chest on its angular surface so I could slide down over the roller. It hurt, but not enough to stop me doing it over and over again. I think it would be hard to construct a memory of physical sensation like that.

And tomorrow I’ll be 44. How very middle-aged. Still, it’s fashionable to be middle-aged – everyone I was at school with is doing it, even the cool kids.

I’m not quite sure when you become middle-aged. Not halfway to three score years and ten, anyway – 35 is young these days, and counting anything by Biblical reference leads to nonsense about the Earth having yet to reach its 6000th birthday and our ancestors having the opportunity to own pet stegosaurs. 

The generally-accepted gateway to middle age seems to be at 40, and that is closer to the halfway mark suggested by UK National Statistics, which is just about 80 (except for viewers in Scotland). So by that token, I have been middle-aged for four years, or ten per cent of my life. But these averages don’t really mean much, middle-age is more a matter of mind than of numbers. I think it happens when mortality first bites, at that point when our sense of invulnerability quietly slides away and we see the final curtain flapping in the wind, even if it is still some way away.

In my case, that was just about a year ago. In the run-up to my 43rd birthday various doctors interviewed, examined and scanned me to ascertain why I had thrashed epileptically across the office floor at the start of October; a week later I went for my first MRI, and disturbingly quickly after that had what is probably still the worst day of my life so far - November 16, 2011 - when I woke up to a phone-call telling me my lovely wee Gran had died, and then went into hospital to learn that I probably had a brain tumour. 

Less than a week after that I was chatting with neurosurgeons who asked nicely if they could cut into the side of my head to check. And on December1, they did.

Just days before that operation I started this blog, so everything that followed - the whole unpleasant business of being told that I did have a tumour and it was likely to try to grow a new head, having to tell other people, and then the vaccines and radiation and chemo, the tiredness and sickness and hair-loss – have all been well documented.

So if you've read at least some of that, you'll realise that on the whole 43 hasn't been a great year for me. But while I hate to cast myself as relentlessly optimistic – I do like to examine all available silver linings for clouds – I can’t help seeing the upsides to this year: I married the love of my life, had a couple of great holidays, and my new-found sense of mortality reinforced my sense of how precious time is, which has given me greater ambition to do things for the fun, satisfaction or hell of them (more on that in later posts, perhaps).

And tomorrow, I’ll be 44. So tonight, Clare and I are off for some posh drinks and then a nice meal in a new and highly-recommended restaurant. Tomorrow, I will go out with my mates for some not-at-all posh drinks, some increasingly badly-focussed pool-playing, a curry, and further beerage to finish.

Wish me a happy birthday. And if you want to make it happier, click the donate puff at the top of the page and give The Beatson some money.

They’re the reason I’m feeling good and ready for another year, after all.